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Pay attention to THIS! No wait, THAT!

Teaching singers is more than just singing through songs over and over and over. Holistic singing lessons includes combining neuro science, anatomy, physiology, psychology, and a healthy dose of humor. We try all kinds of things to help our clients find the right path toward their ideal singing outcomes. Today, let's talk about how we give prompts to students in order to guide them during lessons.

Where do we focus?

In the 2021 article in Journal of Singing by Melissa Treinkman, she outlines some of the recent research into locus of focus (say that five times fast!) and the difference between external and internal focus of attention.

A very simplified explanation is that internal focus of attention looks inward, to the body and how singers experience things inside, and external focus of attention looks outward at the outcome of an action.

Research suggests that an external focus of attention produces more consistent results than an internal focus. This seems to be true regardless of the skill level of the participant, which is very interesting to me. I would think that a more experienced singer or athlete might be able to focus more internally for fine tuned adjustments to technique, but research suggests that is not the case.

What does this mean in the singing studio?

For singers and singing teachers, this difference can mean how we give prompts and how we adjust our technique to get to the outcome we want. For example, think about the prompts you give for these types of outcomes we commonly encounter in lessons:

  • breath support/control

  • vowel shapes

  • tone

  • posture

When I think of these things, I tend to give body-based prompts more often than not. Vowel shapes, for example, is something I talk about in terms of the shape of the lips, the shape of the tongue, and the space inside the mouth. Those are all internally focused.

Perhaps if I changed the prompt to give an example of the sound of the vowel and then allowed the singer to explore how they can get to that sound, we might find that the tongue, lips, and mouth would all get to where they need to be without manipulating them individually. It's definitely something I want to try and explore more with my clients.

What other examples can you think of? How would you rephrase prompts you use in the studio to be more externally focused? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below, or send me a message through the chat. This is fascinating to me, and I'd love to talk about it more with you.

Staying engaged and aware in the body

I do think it is important for singers to be aware of what is happening in their own bodies. Many singers are not connected to their own bodies in a way that they can identify what is happening in their bodies in a mindful way at any given time. There are many different reasons for that. I tend to think that singers who can pinpoint areas of tension, freedom, and balance do a better job of self-diagnosis when they are practicing and performing, and can identify when things are going wonky faster than folks who are not self-aware. So I'm not suggesting that we jettison internally focused attention altogether. I don't know that the research would suggest that, either. Perhaps they work together in a more nuanced and integrated way. Research tends to ask questions in more black and white ways, but our experiences in the world tend to be myriad shades of grey. It could take multiple pathways to get to your singers' desired outcomes, and adding to our toolbox is always valuable.

Putting it into practice

This week, you can try the difference between internally and externally focused prompts and take note the of the outcomes you and your clients achieve. What do you find works best? Do you notice anything that particularly works well or anything that really didn't work at all?

You can even try this with your own singing. Try giving yourself some internally focused prompts and compare with externally focused prompts. Do you find a different outcome for yourself?

Tell me what you notice! I'd love to hear about it. You can contact me or leave a comment below. I'm going to keep thinking and practicing this myself in the coming weeks, to see what happens. I love the pursuit of better teaching, and this kind of experimentation is really fun. The possibilities are exciting!


Treinkman, M. (2021). Focus of attention research: A review and update for teachers of singing. Journal of Singing, 77(3), 407-413.

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shannon coates
shannon coates

YES! Love this!! This is a LOT of what we're going to explore in my upcoming How We Learn 101 Classes (with Cindy Dewey).yaaaayy!! So glad this subject is getting some attention!

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